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Shopping for Verdicts

Pornographer Paul F. Little lives and makes his movies in California. But as federal prosecutors decided to build an obscenity case against him, they purchased five of Little’s “Max Hardcore” DVDs via the internet and had them mailed to a post office box in Tampa, ensuring the trial would take place in a U.S. Middle District of Florida courtroom.

Paul Little
Prosecutors purchased porn videos produced by Paul Little (left) and had them mailed to a post office box in Tampa, ensuring the trial would take place in the Middle District of Florida.
Justice Department officials say they tried Little in Tampa because Little’s business, MaxWorld Entertainment, sold the DVDs through an internet server housed in downtown Tampa, just a few blocks from the federal courthouse. But one of Little’s attorneys suspects there’s more to it than that. Jennifer Kinsley, a First Amendment lawyer who helped defend Little, says Tampa fits the Department of Justice’s “overall strategy of prosecuting obscenity in mid- to large-sized markets because a conviction ostensibly sends a loud message to the adult industry as a whole, and not just the individuals on trial, that nowhere is totally safe.”

Orlando First Amendment lawyer Lawrence G. Walters doesn’t buy the government’s explanation, either. “The server location has never meant anything in these cases, and there was no evidence that Mr. Little even knew where the servers were,” Walters says. “It is also possible that since Florida has become such a major location for adult content production in recent years, the feds are trying to scare the industry out of this state.”

More on the Way

Lawrence G. Walters, a free-speech attorney in Orlando, suspects the timing of Paul Little’s trial had something to do with the Bush administration’s final days in office: “Some have suggested that the Obscenity Task Force is trying to initiate as many new cases as possible before a new administration takes over — either as a parting shot at the industry or as the long-promised payoff to the religious right.”

Laura Sweeney, a spokeswoman at the Justice Department’s obscenity section, says nine obscenity cases are still scheduled to go to trial this year or early next, with none in Florida. Sweeney says the U.S. Justice Department has won 55 convictions on obscenity or related charges since 2000, but she was unsure how many of the 55 convictions involved child pornography and how many, like Little’s, involved adult pornography. In the 2007 case of the ACLU v. Alberto Gonzales, it was revealed that there were fewer than 10 obscenity prosecutions between 2005 and 2007.

Meanwhile, federal prosecutors announced they will prosecute another high-profile defendant, alleged New York mob boss John “Junior” Gotti, in the Middle District. While most of the acts alleged in the indictment occurred in New York, prosecutors steered Gotti’s trial — he’s charged with racketeering and drug trafficking — to Tampa after three attempts to prosecute him in New York ended in mistrials. The prosecutors say the Middle District is a legitimate venue because Gotti was expanding his family’s business to Tampa.

If the federal prosecutors are going out of their way to match a trial with a location favorable to their side, the tactic isn’t raising many eyebrows. So-called venue-shopping happens “all the time,” says Sheri D. McWhorter, a labor attorney with Foley & Lardner in Tampa.

Paul Little
Three attempts to prosecute John Gotti Jr. in New York ended in mistrials. Prosecutors have steered his latest trial to Tampa. [Photo: Louis Lanzano/AP Photo]
So what’s the attraction of Florida’s Middle District, which has hosted so many big trials in recent years, including the Little trial in Tampa and actor Wesley Snipes’ trial in Ocala? For one, says McWhorter, Middle District juries have a reputation of being more conservative, more trusting of authorities, than most. Plus, McWhorter says the district is known for being well-run. “The Middle District of Florida has exceptionally good judges, very sophisticated, very intelligent judges,” she says.

Whatever the prosecutors’ motivation, it worked for them in the Little case. The Tampa jury found Little and his company guilty of 20 counts of selling obscene materials over the internet and mailing obscene materials by U.S. mail. Little faces 100 years in prison. His attorneys plan to appeal.

Facebook as Lie Detector

Jury consultants routinely refer to the latest research on demographics and human behavior, but their success ultimately depends on one question: Is the prospective juror telling the truth? Amy Singer, president and CEO of Trial Consultants in Fort Lauderdale, says the internet has become a valuable fact-checking tool for jury consultants. “We ask them certain questions, like whether they have a website, whether they have a blog, if they have a MySpace page,” Singer says. “Then, if it’s public, we can really look at those things and see what the people are really, really like — and who their friends are and what their friends are like. If the web provides you with enough information for some people to decide to marry each other, it provides you with enough information to be able to make a more intelligent decision about selecting jurors.”